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In Switzerland, giving children a say in life-changing decisions

Switzerland has made a strong international commitment to defending the rights of its children. And one group is committed to making sure the country abides by that promise. 

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Irène Inderbitzin, managing director of the Swiss Child Advocacy Organization, sits in her office in Winterthur, Switzerland.

Samuel Schalch

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The eight-year-old boy sounds agitated. “Hello! Can we please speak on the phone? But only the weekend after next, when I’ll be with my aunt again,” he says in a shaky voice. “Things are not going well in the child care home. But my supervisor mustn’t know about this, it would just make things worse. Please call me, but please make sure that my supervisor knows nothing about it.”

The Kinderanwaltschaft Schweiz, or Swiss Child Advocacy Organization, receives such messages regularly – this one sent by email as an audio file. And such calls are the reason it exists.

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Based in Winterthur, Switzerland, Child Advocacy is an independent association aimed at ensuring that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is fully implemented here. Switzerland ratified the convention in 1997 but 10 years later, certain central aspects of it – such as children’s right to be informed, to be heard, and to participate – were still overlooked.

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“The interests of the child should always come first, ahead of those of the parents or the state,” says Managing Director Irène Inderbitzin. “And in order to determine the child’s interests, the child always needs to be consulted.”

Unlike state institutions such as the Swiss Child Protection Agency, Child Advocacy only goes into action following the expressed wish of the little boy or girl concerned. Once a child has asked for help, the organization uses its experience, negotiation skills, and extensive network to come to his or her assistance.

The names of all children who contact the office, like the eight-year-old boy, are kept anonymous. “We cannot defend children’s rights without protecting their identities,” says Ms. Inderbitzin. “When I started hearing children’s voices describing their stories and their situations on the phone, I was deeply moved.”

This feeling drove her to push for a justice system more mindful of children’s rights – “a justice system in which children are given greater power. The state has a heavy responsibility; if children are empowered, they can grow up to become healthy, responsible adults, despite their difficult circumstances. If, on the other hand, matters are decided over their heads, they are weakened and may suffer the consequences their whole lives,” she says.

Asking for a child’s opinion does not necessarily mean that the decisions taken are the ones he or she asked for, Inderbitzin says. But allowing children to participate strengthens their resilience. They realize that their actions and responsibilities have some effect.

Child Advocacy is pushing for the rights of every child involved in a legal process, including the right to have a legal representative when necessary, for cases such as divorce, child protection, asylum requests, school issues, and medical procedures.

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But while the organization takes calls and letters from children, it does not interact directly with them. Instead, it acts as an intermediary, making contact with the relevant authorities, organizing discussions, and ensuring that children are kept in the loop.

Some 100,000 children come into contact with the Swiss justice system every year. In 2017, Child Advocacy intervened on behalf of 356 children, usually because their right to be informed and heard was not respected. In most cases, the organization was able to mediate. But in seven cases out of 100, the child needed a legal representative.

Five people work in the Child Advocacy office, and five more sit on its board. Volunteers regularly offer their assistance, while half a dozen experts provide the organization with legal and scientific advice. Dozens of public ambassadors support the organization’s work, including prominent publishers, businessmen, politicians, and artists.

Dozens of times, Inderbitzin says, she has seen that “when children are heard and empowered, they cope better with a difficult situation.”

Such was the case for the eight-year-old boy at the childcare home, whose mother was unable to care for him and whose father was not around. He eventually agreed to inform his supervisor of his problems. Their discussions led to an all-parties agreement that included the boy. Today, he is living with his aunt.

This story was reported by Tages-Anzeiger, a news outlet in Switzerland. The Monitor is publishing it as part of Impact Journalism Day, an international effort by more than 50 news organizations worldwide to promote solutions journalism. To read other stories in this joint project organized by Paris-based Sparknews, please click here